COMMERCE BIGHT PORT –AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REAL DEVELOPMENT
Careful observations and analysis of development strategies that have been implemented by successive PUP and UDP administrations for southern Belize reveal a distinct underlying colonially-rooted bias that has persistently excluded Belizean Maya, Garifuna and black Creole residents from becoming integral players and substantial beneficiaries of the resources in their area. Such deeply rooted bias is revealed through the dynamics of race and ethnicity, political and economic interests of the oligarchy, narrow city-centric view of national development and the behavior of investors in relation to state actors and the people.
Consequently, despite the fact that southern Belize and particularly the Stann Creek District has the highest concentration of major industries (e.g. citrus, banana, aquaculture, tourism) compared to all other districts, overall investments have shown an exclusion of a significant percentage of the native local population. For example, unlike the sugar industry in the north where small farmers participate and benefit, the banana industry has long ago obliterated small farmer participation. The industry is controlled by eight growers who own a combined 7,000 acres of farms that thrive on incentives and cheap labor imported from across the border.
In both Stann Creek and Toledo Districts there still remain the decades-old recurrent socioeconomic conditions: – high levels of poverty and unemployment, low per capita income, substandard quality of educational services and achievements, limited access to quality social services, dysfunctional local leadership, brain drain, and vast neglect of youth. Were it not for remittances that many receive from relatives abroad, the situation would have been much worse.
Evidently, the substantial investments in these industries have not resulted in widespread effective difference in the quality of life of native Belizeans as it should. Instead these seemed to have widened the disparities from colonial patterns of ownership, labor relations, productive capacities, income and assets. This paradigm continues to lock native Belizeans into subservient roles while the stifling education system fails to nurture leadership, creative and productive capacities. In this system the few interconnected elite families are enabled to amass more wealth through their favored political influence, various incentives and access to resources and capital. Belizeans in the southern districts have been forced to grapple with this socioeconomic predicament. It is nothing to dance punta about.
Within this backdrop, serious local concerns have been raised about the potential impact of GOB’s recent undertaking to grant Belize Island Holdings Ltd., “a 25-year concession for a berthing facility for cruise ships as the only cruise ship port of entry for southern Belize,” as stated in the MOU of July 2013. If not carefully planned, development strategies that grant exclusive right of the resources to a foreign company could have serious implications for potential local, national and regional development opportunities from the Commerce Bight port.
Having been virtually out of operation for over the past 15 years since it was clandestinely granted to private ownership by the PUP administration, the port at Commerce Bight can be further suppressed of its vast potential for another 25 years. By extension, after being denied the opportunity to be an integral part of the development of Commerce Bight port, the people of Dangriga and southern Belize could be dealt another economic blow if GoB finalizes such an agreement for Harvest Caye. It is hoped that this time, GoB will utilize the potential of Commerce Bight port to shift the status quo and ensure widespread economic benefits for the people.
There is no denying the fact that the natural deep water channel that runs close to the coast at Commerce Bight, three miles south of Dangriga, is Belize’s best strategic location for a deep sea port to accommodate large vessels, and enhance maritime international trade for growth of the national economy.
The importance of this area as a natural deep water port was recognized as far back as the 1890s with the establishment and rapid growth of the banana industry in the Stann Creek District. In 1906, the colonial government decided to build a railroad from Commerce Bight Pier to Middlesex, a distance of about 26 miles. By 1908, regular steam ships from abroad were discharging imported cargo on the pier and then loading with bananas and mail for export to New Orleans. In the 1920s, the first grapefruits were shipped from Commerce Bight to England and Canada. Coconuts and lumber were also shipped to the U.S., Martinique, Guadalupe, Barbados and other Caribbean countries. Regular steam ships hailed from Jamaica. In various periods over the century, the Commerce Bight Pier has served as a major trading hub for Belize, and provided a stable source of income for many in Dangriga and the Stann Creek District.
Dollar for dollar in investments, the comparative advantage of Commerce Bight port relative to the port at Belize City is unmatched. Currently at only 400 feet, the trestle at Commerce Bight reaches a water depth of 24 to 27 feet. The Belize City port takes more than six times that length of trestle, 2,514 feet, to reach similar depth. Even after spending BZ$30 million to construct that length of trestle in Belize City to reach such minimal depth, an additional BZ$42million was spent to dredge an access channel of 4,600 meters to reach the pier head. Similar investments would have to be made for periodic dredging to keep the channel clear. With all this, King’s Wharf at the Belize City port can only accommodate a limited size (up to 300ft) of vessels. Access to natural deep water from Belize City to accommodate larger vessels is about five miles offshore (where the cruise ships dock).
On the contrary, the port at Commerce Bight requires no dredging to access deep water. This already saves millions of dollars otherwise spent on Belize City, and preserves the pristine marine environment from the destructive impacts of dredging. From the shores of Commerce Bight, it takes only a little over half a mile to access deeper waters of 45 feet for accommodating much larger vessels, including cruise ships, as compared to five miles from Belize City.
Given the present world trend for increasing size in ships, and given the increase in cargo traffic at the Belize City port, a modernized port at Commerce Bight comes as a much-needed national requirement. Substantial economic and regional integration benefits can be accrued from increased trade.
Belize’s unique geographic position makes the deep sea port at Commerce Bight a major potential hub for regional trade from the Caribbean and Atlantic regions, to and from Peten and other areas of Guatemala’s interior through to its Pacific coast, other countries in Central America, southern Mexico and on to the rest of the world. Once a deep sea port is developed at Commerce Bight, shipping lines can deploy larger and deeper draft vessels. The greater volume at the port will result in more efficient economic cost. Strategically located in the center of Belize’s coast, the Commerce Bight port could provide expanded services for Belize’s exports and imports.
Other advantages of the Commerce Bight Port include: (i) enhanced competitiveness of Belize’s exports and imports due to expanded volume; (ii) lower shipment costs for exporters of citrus, oil and other goods due to the shorter travel distances and shipping time for their cargo, resulting in higher profitability for exporters; (iii) decrease in general price levels as import costs decrease; (iv) lower freight rates for container and general cargo due to the utilization of bigger cargo vessels; and (v) improved employment opportunities and income for local people (men as well as women) in port-related activities and through a new industrial /economic zone that could be developed in the area.
The Government’s recent re-acquisition of Commerce Bight port sparks some hope that this time the past biases will be eliminated and the people of Dangriga and southern Belize could play an integral role in planning and deriving substantial benefits from the port. It is hoped that Harvest Caye will not compromise this potential. It is also hoped that this time, the status quo of the historical economic paradigm that has gripped the south will be broken and that the people will no longer be sidelined.